Start Up No.1306: web sites really are growing more alike, India’s dead smartphone market, Apple gets cloudier, Microsoft blocks reply-all, our confusing internet attitudes, and more


When the lockdowns end will the office turn out to be dead, or just in limbo? CC-licensed photo by Roberta on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. “Pressure’s building, overspill”. Name the song (without search, if you can.) I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Yes, websites really are starting to look more similar • The Conversation

Sam Goree is a PhD student at Indiana University:

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We found that across all three metrics – color, layout and AI-generated attributes – the average differences between websites peaked between 2008 and 2010 and then decreased between 2010 and 2016. Layout differences decreased the most, declining over 30% in that time frame.


The graph shows website similarity of companies in the Russell 1000. Lower values mean that the sites studied were more similar, on average. Sam Goree, Author provided

These findings confirm the suspicions of web design bloggers that websites are becoming more similar. After showing this trend, we wanted to study our data to see what kinds of specific changes were causing it.

You might think that these sites are simply copying each other’s code, but code similarity has actually significantly decreased over time. However, the use of software libraries has increased a lot.

…What should be made of this creeping conformity?

On the one hand, adhering to trends is totally normal in other realms of design, like fashion or architecture. And if designs are becoming more similar because they’re using the same libraries, that means they’re likely becoming more accessible to the visually impaired, since popular libraries are generally better at conforming to accessibility standards than individual developers. They’re also more user-friendly, since new visitors won’t have to spend as much time learning how to navigate the site’s pages.

On the other hand, the internet is a shared cultural artifact, and its distributed, decentralized nature is what makes it unique. As home pages and fully customizable platforms like NeoPets and MySpace fade into memory, web design may lose much of its power as a form of creative expression. The Mozilla Foundation has argued that consolidation is bad for the “health” of the internet, and the aesthetics of the web could be seen as one element of its well-being.

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Jakob Nielsen pointed out long ago that it made sense for smaller sites to copy the layout of the big ones, for example in the placement of a search icon, menu, and so on. It’s an accretive, gravitational pull.
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The office is dead • Marker

Courtney Rubin:

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It’s something no one could have foreseen three months ago. After a decade of economic expansion, commercial rents had risen to an average of nearly $30 per square foot, or 3.4% over last year, according to an April report from Newmark Knight Frank, a New York-based commercial real estate brokerage firm with offices in some 100 U.S. cities. Many companies had an aversion to remote work — IBM, for one, canceled working from home in 2017 — and few had the technology or infrastructure to make it work seamlessly. IBM was hardly alone: At the outset of the crisis, remote work evangelist and Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson Twitter-shamed dozens of companies — including Accenture, ATT, Cognizant, Epic Systems, Tesla, SpaceX, and Wells Fargo — for dragging their heels in allowing employees work from home.

Now, more than two months in, the mass work-from-home experiment has forced many businesses out of their comfort zone, pushing them to make the necessary small investments in virtual infrastructure. Even typically staid financial firms like Morgan Stanley and Barclays have adapted, finding solutions to security hurdles that previously prevented a distributed workforce. Many of these companies are realizing that it is not only less scary than they imagined, but their employees are actually more productive. One analysis of server activity found that workers are putting in longer workdays; imagine what that kind of productivity boost might look like when kids finally go back to school. Now, staring down the barrel of a recession, companies are shifting into cost-cutting survival mode — and the huge fixed cost of office space will, for many, be first on the chopping block.

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I think to call the office dead is an overstatement. But the bargaining power is going to be with those seeking to rent, not those with the buildings. We’ve discovered that we can do OK without. Bad time to be in commercial real estate.
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Apple quietly hiring some of the world’s best cloud talent • Protocol

Tom Krazit:

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Over the past few months, Apple has gone on a cloud computing hiring spree, snapping up several well-known software engineers working across a range of modern technologies, especially containers and Kubernetes. The quantity and quality of the new hires has caused a stir in the tight-knit cloud community, and could indicate that Apple is finally getting serious about building tech infrastructure on par with companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

The new employees include:
• Michael Crosby, one of a handful of ex-Docker engineers to join Apple this year. “Michael is who we can thank for containers as they exist today. He was the powerhouse engineer behind all of it,” said a former colleague who asked to remain anonymous.
• Arun Gupta, who joined Apple in February from AWS and is now leading Apple’s open-source efforts.
• Maksym Pavlenko, another former AWS employee who worked on its managed container services such as AWS Fargate.
• Francesc Campoy, an ex-Googler who will be working on Kubernetes for Apple.

It’s not entirely clear what Apple has in mind, but numerous job postings indicate that the company is in the midst of building new tools for its internal software development teams. Apple declined to comment on its plans for the new hires.

Apple runs a massive web operation, including the iCloud file storage service, the App Store, Apple Music, Apple TV+ and its own ecommerce site. However, it has for years been considered a bit of a backwater in the tech infrastructure community, far behind companies like AWS, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Netflix.

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Wouldn’t they want them for their web and cloud operations? Just a thought. Why wouldn’t you want the best people so they can choose from the best outside services, if that’s what they’re going to do, or build the best in-house ones?
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Microsoft now blocks reply-all email storms to end our inbox nightmares • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Reply-all email storms are a problem that affect businesses large and small, and have been occurring for decades. Microsoft had its own infamous incident back in 1997, which employees fondly refer to as Bedlam DL3. Around 25,000 people were on a distribution list and kept replying to the thread, generating 15,000,000 email messages and 195 gigabytes of data. The incident overwhelmed Microsoft’s own Exchange mail servers, and the company rolled out a message recipient limit in Exchange to try and tackle future problems.

Microsoft still suffers from reply-all email storms, though. Last year a GitHub notification triggered an email storm for thousands of Microsoft employees. Back in March, thousands of Microsoft employees were also caught in a reply-all email thread that was quickly shut down within 30 minutes.

Microsoft’s new reply-all email block feature will stay in place for four hours after it’s automatically triggered, enough time to stop people from asking “why am I on this email thread?” hundreds of times. The new feature appears to be working for Microsoft’s own employees. “Humans still behave like humans no matter which company they work for,” says the Exchange team. “We’re already seeing the first version of the feature successfully reduce the impact of reply-all storms within Microsoft.”

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It’s “initially being rolled out to detect 10 reply-all emails to over 5,000 recipients within 60 minutes.” That 5,000 figure is something of a high bar. Configurable would be better. Wonder how soon Google will do the same for G Suite?
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People, Power and Technology: the 2020 Digital Attitudes Report • doteveryone

Catherine Miller:

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This year’s research finds people continue to feel the internet is better for them as individuals than for society as a whole. 81% say the internet has made life a lot or a little better for ‘people like me’ while 58% say it has had a very positive or fairly positive impact on society overall.

In discussions held shortly after the start of the pandemic lockdown, people were particularly grateful for their ability to continue to work, maintain friendships and access information thanks to technology.  

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There’s a personal thing where, on a day to day basis, these things are so useful – the speed at which we can order things, we can talk to people, we don’t have to leave the house. Brilliant! But I think there is a big picture in what is it doing to society and where is it going to take us? Because ultimately, if we have machines that do everything, we don’t even need to get out of bed in the morning, we don’t have a purpose anymore. –People, Power and Technology 2020 research participant

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However, there’s been a significant drop in the strength of people’s enthusiasm over the past two years with 38% saying the internet has made life a lot better for people like them, compared to 50% in 2018.  

And it finds most people (58%) think the industry is under-regulated. They identify government (53%) and independent regulators (48%) as having most responsibility for directing the impacts of technology on people and society. 

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The split between thinking it’s good for you as an individual, yet less good for society, is fascinating. A bit like cars being good for you individually – so convenient! – but bad for cities and, ultimately, the planet.
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Coronavirus hit household spending much harder than BoE assumed • Financial Times

Chris Giles:

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Household spending dropped more than 40% in April, according to real-time data from a large survey of bank accounts, suggesting the Bank of England was too optimistic in its assumptions when it forecast that the coronavirus crisis would lead to the worst recession in over 300 years.

In its bleak assessment last week, the central bank pointed to data showing a “reduction in the level of household consumption of around 30%”.

But the research by the London Business School published on Monday showed spending had fallen much further last month than estimated by the BoE, while incomes had come under greater strain, pushing some families deeper into debt and exacerbating inequality.

The 40% drop in household expenditure does not translate simply to gross domestic product, but suggests a deeper downturn than either the BoE or Office for Budget Responsibility have predicted.

The study used anonymised financial information for over 30,000 people from the Money Dashboard app, which links to all users’ bank accounts, debit and credit cards, enabling researchers to see exactly where spending was hit hardest.

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Personally, based on my credit card spending, my discretionary spending (including food) was down over 60% in April compared to typical months; on fuel, by 80% (that’s rural living).
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5G will not kill us all, but stupidity might • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

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On Friday, The New Republic published an article by Christopher Ketcham, under the thoughtful and modest title, “Is 5G Going to Kill Us All?”

It’s astonishing to see an article like this run in a publication of The New Republic‘s history and caliber, particularly at a time when 5G conspiracy theorists are actively destroying cell phone towers and wrecking installations thanks to baseless conspiracy theories linking 5G to coronavirus. There have been 77 arson attacks since March 30, with staff reporting 180 incidents of abuse. Articles like Ketcham’s only fan the flames.

I can’t speak to any of Christopher Ketcham’s writing on any other topic, but when it comes to wireless technology, he’s been banging the same drum for a decade — and using exactly the same rhetorical techniques to do it.

In a story written in 2010, Ketcham begins by telling us the story of Allison Rall back in 1990, a young mom with three children whose cattle sicken and children fall ill after a cellular tower is installed nearby. He immediately ties her case to a statement by an EPA scientist named Carl Blackman, who tells us/her, “With my government cap on, I’m supposed to tell you you’re perfectly safe,” Blackman tells her. “With my civilian cap on, I have to tell you to consider leaving.”

In the most recent story, we are introduced to Debbie Persampire, a woman “who believes cell phones are poisoning her children.” Ketcham presents this statement uncritically, even as he describes how the woman covers the rooms of her house in an EMF-reducing paint that sells for ~$66 per liter. Her family, we are told, “trusts her.” Whether her doctor trusts her is not discussed.

From that point, Ketcham pivots. Now, we’re told that a 2018 study by the National Toxicology Program discovered evidence that exposing rats to cell phone radiation can cause various forms of cancer. Again, it’s the exact same story structure — a sympathetic emotional hook, a mother in desperate straits, and finally, a government figure or body with critical information showing a major problem that somehow, somehow, has been swept under the rug.

The only problem is, it’s claptrap from start to finish.

Let’s talk about why.

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For ages, we’ve fallen behind in the manufacture of debunking. But now, our factories are getting back to speed.
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I’m an investigative journalist. These are the questions to ask about the Plandemic video • ProPublica

Marshall Allen:

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Sensational videos, memes, rants and more about COVID-19 are likely to keep coming. With society polarized and deep distrust of the media, the government and other institutions, such content is a way for bad actors to sow discord, mostly via social media. We saw it with Russia in the 2016 election and we should expect it to continue.

But what surprised me is how easily “Plandemic” sank its hooks into some of my friends. My brother also felt alarmed that his own church members and leaders in other churches might be tempted to buy into it.

The purpose of this column is not to skewer “Plandemic.” My goal is to offer some criteria for sifting through all the content we see every day, so we can tell the difference between fair reporting and something so biased it should not be taken seriously.

Here’s a checklist, some of which I shared with my friends on Facebook, to help interrogate any content — and that includes what we publish at ProPublica.

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Useful list of questions to ask about any of these things (whether sensible or not) you come across. I particularly noted this:

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Every time I write a story that accuses someone of wrongdoing I call them and urge them to explain the situation from their perspective. This is standard in mainstream journalism. Sometimes I’ve gone to extreme lengths to get comments from someone who will be portrayed unfavorably in my story — traveling to another state and showing up at their office and their home and leaving a note if they are not there to meet me.

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If you want actual takedowns of the “Plandemic” thing (removed from every reliable platform), there’s Ars Technica and Science magazine. It’s nonsense, though on a level that’s probably resistant to actual facts.
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How Trump and the CDC failed the COVID-19 test • Rolling Stone

Tim Dickinson:

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The government leaders who failed to safeguard the nation are CDC Director Redfield; FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn; Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar; and of course, President Trump. Together, these men had the power to change the direction of this pandemic, to lessen its impact on the economy, and constrain the death toll from COVID-19. Each failed, in a series of errors and mismanagement that grew into a singular catastrophe — or as Jared Kushner described it on Fox & Friends, “a great success story.”

Defeating an invisible enemy like the coronavirus requires working diagnostics. But when the CDC’s original test kit failed, there was no Plan B. The nation’s private-sector biomedical establishment is world-class, but the administration kept these resources cordoned behind red tape as the CDC foundered. Precious weeks slipped by — amid infighting, ass covering, and wasted effort — and the virus slipped through the nation’s crippled surveillance apparatus, taking root in hot spots across the country, and in particular, New York City.

The mismanagement cost lives. With adequate testing from the beginning, says Dr. Howard Forman, a Yale professor of public-health policy, “we would have been able to stop the spread of this virus in its tracks the way that many other nations have.” Instead, says Sen. Murray, the administration’s response was “wait until it’s too late, and then try and contain one of the most aggressive viruses that we’ve ever seen.”

Blind to the virus’s penetration and unable to target mitigation where it was needed, the administration and state governors had to resort to the blunt instrument of shuttering the economy, says Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. And the lack of testing kept us in limbo. “Our economy is shut down because we still do not have adequate testing,” Jha says. “We have been woefully behind from the beginning of this pandemic.”

If the president’s deputies made trillion-dollar mistakes, accountability for the pandemic response lies with Trump, who waived off months of harrowing intelligence briefings, choosing to treat the coronavirus as a crisis in public relations, rather than a public-health emergency. Having staked his re-election on a strong economy, Trump downplayed the virus.

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Political, not capable appointees with political, not health aims. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Coronavirus impact: Indian smartphone market sees zero sales in April, no clear picture for May • Yahoo News

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The extended lockdown in India has resulted in zero shipments for the smartphone players in India in the month of April as factories are shut and it will take two-four weeks time for the manufacturing units to resume normal operations once lockdown is relaxed. The month of March saw a steep annual decline in smartphone shipments, at -19%, due to COVID-19 nationwide lockdown that settled in from March 24.

Since then, factories are closed, retail shops are shut and online sellers are busy delivering groceries and other essential items. Result: April has seen almost zero sales.

“We see zero activity on smartphone shipments part in April and lockdown now entering May amid uncertainties, the Q2 2020 is going to be really challenging for the smartphone makers in the country,” Tarun Pathak, Associate Director, Counterpoint Research, told IANS.

“We have been hearing some absolute essential sales happened behind the scenes during the lockdown but yes, those will be in hundreds as against potential 11-12 million smartphone sales which happen in a normal month,” Pathak added.

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Zero. Zero.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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